DIY Ikea hacks

Think outside the flat pack and come up with alternative uses for Ikea products
Think outside the flat pack and come up with alternative uses for Ikea products 

There is a new breed of Ikea shopper who see the Swedish company's finished product as a starting point.

There is a new breed of Ikea shopper who see the Swedish company's finished product as a starting point.

Individual creativity is probably the last thing you associate with Ikea. The homewares giant churns out millions of identical pieces of low-priced furniture and sells them through its 265 stores in 35 countries. Every day, millions of people go to their local Ikea super-store, pick up a catalogue, buy a desk [and the all-important allen key], probably the same desk as their neighbour, and take it home and assemble it.

But there is a new breed of Ikea shopper. They're called Ikea Hackers and they see the Swedish company's finished product as a starting point, as raw material, as a suggestion only. They think outside the flat pack and come up with alternative uses for Ikea products. Shoe cabinets become laundry hampers, a bunk bed is flipped over and turned into a canopied princess bed, a tent becomes a cupola over the head of a children's bed, black and white-print linen is coloured in with fabric markers and embellished with beads, and one of our favourites, five sheepskin rugs sewn together become a bearskin rug for the floor.

Ikea Hackers are saying no to the endless stream of manufactured goods in our lives

One man in Israel built a tree house out of Ikea furniture. Perhaps inspired by the weather, Melissa Fehr in London refashioned a shower curtain into a water-proof dress [lined with a bed sheet for comfort].

Others have made tote bags out of patterned drawer mats, children's clothes out of quilt covers and pillow cases and one woman has cut a hole in the middle of a $3.99 blanket and wears it as a poncho. Ingenious.

All this reinvention is for fun and function but it is also iconoclastic. Ikea Hackers are saying no to the endless stream of manufactured goods in our lives. As Ikea Hacker and University of California, Berkeley, lecturer Michael Zbyszynski, whose own hack is a music speaker made from Ikea salad bowls, told the New York Times recently, "It's all about not accepting what's presented for sale as it is, about not just doing a 'paint-by-numbers' of your life. "I think there is a movement around looking at all the products that are available - this global stream of stuff - and realising you can tinker with them and rebuild them."

Tinkering with Ikea products led Mei Mei Yap [aka Jules - the name of her favourite Ikea chair] to set up the immensely popular Ikea Hacker Blog.

In May, 2006, the Kuala Lumpur native Googled Ikea Hackers and was so impressed by the number of subversive do-it-yourselfers, crafters, artists, tinkerers and designers around the world reconfiguring Ikea's assembly-line designs, she set up a blog devoted to them. "I saw there were so many wonderful ideas floating in the World Wide Web - enough for me to think it was a great idea to compile them and put them all in one place. It took me a few nights of sleepless html-ing but I'm happy I did. Finally, I am of service to mankind, heh," says Mei Mei.

So why Ikea? Apart from its low prices - "if it's expensive, nobody is going to cut it up" - Mei Mei says Ikea is easy to customise because you're already assembling it yourself and mixing this frame with that cabinet and those knobs. Hacking, she says, takes it a bit further, to fit your exact needs, including the need to outsmart the system.

"Some of the hackers do feel they have outsmarted the system, used Ikea furniture as raw material, but I think most people do it for fun. They make what they need and add a personal touch for fun. I doubt it's out of ideology, unless they are artists. It's definitely a growing trend. I used to get two or three hacks a week sent to me, now I get two or three hacks a day." Mei Mei herself, who admits that although she loves decorating and living with creativity, isn't too good with an allen key and has done three modest hacks, including a stack of wall cabinets. "Nothing fancy ... they don't even qualify for my site".

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Not only does the Ikea Hacker blog stage the work of Ikea Hackers from all over the world, showing an alternate view of Ikea and its furniture, it's full of ideas to personalise your mass-produced pine table and make it more unique; an electric guitar perhaps, as Alex Csiky did, from an Ikea pine table.

As well, there's plenty of technical advice for improving or changing original Ikea designs. Simon thought his Ikea recliner didn't recline far enough, so he hacked it. He removed a few nuts and bolts and now it does what he wants. In his entry on the blog, he's included a photograph of the precise items he removed to achieve his aim.

You can browse categories to search a specific hack, from accessories to work stations; you can explore the archives - the 137 hacks posted from mid-2006, the 318 posted so far in 2007. There are photographs, including one of an Ohio car with LUV IKEA registration plates, and there's even a recipe for Swedish meatballs [from Ikea's Real Swedish Food Book].

Putting an artistic twist on the assembly of Ikea products is, no doubt, part of the worldwide trend towards do-it-yourself, towards making something unique and giving it value, towards hands-on and handmade.

Like Ikea Hacker Winnie Lam who turned a hum-drum footstool into a Chocolate Sundae Toppings footstool by hot-gluing a few bags of cotton pompoms to its top. "It came from staring into a bowl of ice-cream one day. I'm a chocolate-lover but I'd rather look at it than eat it."

Historically, fashion and architecture have both witnessed deconstruction, but this seems to be the first time the man in the street has done it. It's interesting, says one Italian designer [who is also an Ikea Hacker], because it is about "stuff made by common people ... it is a very contemporary phenomenon".

For their part, Ikea says it applauds creativity in design and reducing waste. "Ikea Hackers are in a way just taking the Ikea ideals of recycling and re-using and giving them a fresh new meaning," says Julie Barber, communications manager for Ikea Australia East. "Obviously, Ikea believes that its products are perfectly designed the way they are, but its designers are also aware that many people like to reinvent products to add a touch of their own personality."

To think outside the flat pack.

This article is brought to you by livingcreatively.com.au